WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said he may soon visit Israel to open a new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem as he offered a warm welcome Monday to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — one that did not include any public mention of the potentially career-ending inquiry that followed the long-serving Israeli leader to Washington.
“I may” go for the planned May opening of the embassy, Trump said. “We’re looking at coming. If I can, I will.”
Netanyahu said of Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem: “This will be remembered by our people through the ages. Others talked about it. You did it.”
The relocated embassy Trump would inaugurate is actually a refitted office that will serve as the vanguard U.S. diplomatic headquarters until a permanent structure is built years from now.
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Trump boasted Monday that he is building it for a mere $250,000, instead of what he said was a $1 billion government “order.”
He appeared to be referring only to the initial office. The permanent structure is estimated to take roughly a decade to be built and could easily cost $1 billion.
The two leaders, who have formed a personal bond closer than any Trump has with other world leaders, gave no sign that the corruption allegations, which Netanyahu denies, were coloring their meeting. Trump has a cloud over his own administration as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III investigates his aides and others as part of an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“We have, I would say, probably the best relationships right now with Israel that we ever had,” Trump said. “I think we’re as close now as, maybe, ever before.”
Trump noted that other presidents hesitated to move the embassy from Tel Aviv and said that his decision can clear the air for an eventual peace deal.
Palestinians disagree, saying the embassy decision spoils chances for peace, by appearing to write off their claim to East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state.
Netanyahu arrived at the White House early Monday afternoon, just hours after reports from Israel said a former media adviser and confidant has turned state’s witness in a far-reaching bribery case.
In what appeared to be a sign of the political importance of the session to Netanyahu, the White House changed plans Monday morning and announced that reporters and cameras would be allowed into what had been an Oval Office meeting closed to the media.
Netanyahu’s praise of Trump and his upending of U.S. policy on Jerusalem was meant as a sign of political strength at home — it aired during the much-watched evening news period in Israel — and it hinted at the stakes for the veteran leader.
“I have been here for nearly four decades … talking, seeking to build the American-Israeli alliance,” Netanyahu said, referring to his long career in Israeli politics. “Under your leadership, it’s never been stronger, and the people of Israel see your position on Jerusalem, they see your position on Iran. They see your magnificent defense of Israel and the truth in the United Nations.”
And as prime minister, he said, he sees something his citizens cannot in the deep and interdependent intelligence and defense networks the two allies have built. Trump nodded repeatedly as Netanyahu spoke.
“Thank you for your leadership. And thank for your tremendous friendship,” Netanyahu said as Trump smiled.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, attended some but not all of the lengthy session, Netanyahu said later. Kushner has lost his top-level security clearance.
Kushner’s business dealings are also under special-counsel scrutiny.
Kushner heads an effort to broker what Trump has called “the ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians, but the plan was a back-burner issue at Monday’s session. It was shelved amid fierce Arab and allied opposition to Trump’s decision in December to declare that the United States considers Jerusalem to be Israeli’s capital.
Asked Monday about chances for peace, Trump seemed more optimistic than he has in other recent comments.
“We’re working on it very hard,” Trump said. “It would be a great achievement — and even from a humanitarian standpoint — what better if we could make peace between Israel and the Palestinians? And I can tell you, we are working very hard on doing that. And I think we have a very good chance.”
He gave no date for when the United States might unveil its proposals.
“The Palestinians, I think, are wanting to come back to the table very badly,” Trump said.
Pressed as to what he meant, given the hard line Palestinians have taken against any U.S.-brokered peace effort, Trump sounded matter-of-fact.
“If they don’t, you don’t have peace,” he said.
Speaking to the media before setting off for Washington, Netanyahu told reporters that he planned to reiterate Israel’s concerns over the Iranian nuclear deal and the growing prominence of Iran in Syria, and planned to discuss issues related to Trump’s potential Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s political career is dogged by at least three criminal cases at home and seems less stable than ever.
While the country’s right-wing coalition has mostly rallied around the long-serving prime minister, there are signs of weakness as the investigations progress. Additional reports Monday of a faceoff between Netanyahu’s coalition partners over the long-running issue of drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into the state military seems to also suggest the possibility of snap elections.
They could come as early as June.
On Friday, Netanyahu was questioned by Israeli detectives about his role in a case involving Nir Hefetz, the man Israeli media refer to as Netanyahu’s “spin doctor.” Labeled Case 4000 by the police, it is said to involve the granting of regulatory benefits worth millions of dollars to Israeli telecommunications giant Bezeq in return for positive news coverage for the Netanyahu family on the Walla news website.
Israeli news reports Monday said that Hefetz has agreed to turn state’s witness; police declined to comment.
At the center of the case is Shaul Elovitch, Walla’s owner and a majority shareholder in Bezeq, who is said to have made millions in the easing of communication regulations. Netanyahu is linked to the case because he was communications minister at that time. Shlomo Filber, the former director general of the Communications Ministry, recently turned state’s witness in the case.
The new developments in Case 4000 come weeks after police recommended indicting Netanyahu in two cases — Case 1000 and Case 2000, in police parlance. According to the police notes, Case 1000 involves gifts of cigars and jewelry amounting to more than $280,000 that the prime minister and his wife are suspected of receiving from billionaire benefactors.
Case 2000, police said, involved deals made between Netanyahu and Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. According to information leaked to the Israeli media, an agreement apparently would have allowed the prime minister to receive more favorable coverage from the newspaper if he agreed to weaken the status of a rival daily newspaper owned by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.
Israel’s attorney general must now decide whether to indict Netanyahu on those two cases.
In an additional case, dubbed Case 3000, involving a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with Germany, several members of Netanyahu’s inner circle have been named as suspects, questioned or arrested. The case has not been linked to Netanyahu directly.
Iran and the 2015 international nuclear pact are expected to be Netanyahu’s focus during an address Tuesday to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Netanyahu told Israeli reporters traveling with him that he argued to Trump that the president should “fix or nix” the nuclear agreement signed three years ago limiting Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief.
Vice President Pence and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley addressed the hawkish pro-Israel group Monday evening. Both are among the Trump advisers who are deeply skeptical about the Iran nuclear agreement, which Trump has threatened to abandon in May. Both were also proponents of the embassy move.
“Standing up for your friends is critical,” said Haley, a favorite at the conference who received extended rounds of applause.
The crowd loudly applauded her account of how the United States announced its withdrawal from UNESCO, the U.N. heritage agency that she accused of a history of bias against Israel.
“We’re never going to put up with bullying.”
She got even louder applause when she said “Jerusalem was, is, and will always be the capital of Israel.”